In the past few days, Amanda Spielman, Ofsted chief inspector, has been publicising a review that Ofsted have written into curriculum in schools. Two of their big findings are:
- The primary curriculum is narrowing in some schools as a consequence of too great a focus on preparing for key stage 2 tests.
- The intended curriculum for lower-attaining pupils in some secondary schools was often associated with the qualifications that count in league tables, but not with other knowledge they should be acquiring.
What they basically mean are: primary schools are focusing on English and maths too much in Year 6 because of the Sats exams and secondary schools are prioritising ensuring pupils can secure good grades in exams over the type of subject being studied.
In particular, secondary schools are either starting GCSE options early and so cutting KS3 short, or pushing lower attaining pupils onto less rigorous courses that don’t give them the "right sort" of knowledge.
For those of you that have been around the profession a while, your first thought is probably “Is this what counts for news these days?”
It will come as no surprise to you that primary schools spend an increasing time preparing for Sats in the later primary years, or that secondary schools prioritise exam success.
What might surprise you is that apparently most of the blame for this lies with school leaders. School leaders apparently mistake "badges and stickers" for learning and substance.
I am not a school leader, but even I baulked at this statement. Between them, the government and Ofsted have cost more people their careers over not getting enough pupils the correct "badges and stickers" than I can count.
In the past few years not more than a couple of weeks have gone by that I don’t hear of a school where the pupils haven’t got the required grades being slated in an Ofsted report, or re-brokered to an academy trust by the Department for Education, with the near-inevitable departure of a headteacher or other members of the senior team a consequence.
On the other hand I know those schools that work really hard to make sure pupils make progress in the subjects they choose for GCSE, that share in their pupils’ pride and joy when they get the magic five A* to C grades (soon to be 9 to 4, or is it 9 to 5?) that will enable them to study the A-level course or apprenticeship that they really wanted to do.
For the chief inspector of Ofsted to reduce these career-defining moments to "mistakes", is frankly insulting.
An insult to the profession
A quote from Ms Spielman that has been published in more than one publication is: “It should also not be taken as read that higher scores for the school always means a better deal for pupils. If a pupil gains valuable knowledge, for instance in history, but does not get a grade 4, they will still be better-educated for having studied it.”
For a group that states that it shares the government’s commitment to social mobility, this statement is appalling.
To suggest that a school would be better served prioritising certain types of knowledge over grades, while still existing in the accountability system that we do, is laughable.
I am far from convinced that any school leader would be able to use the argument “these kids didn’t get a grade 4, but they all did history so gained valuable knowledge” as a way of saving their job. I also greatly doubt any child will be able to say to the FE or sixth-form college that they want to join, “I didn’t get all the grade 4s you wanted, but I did history so I gained valuable knowledge”.
Our assessment and accountability system has been designed to reward getting the highest grades possible, for the pupil and the school. The whole progression system beyond compulsory education is tied in with this. If we want pupils to be socially mobile, they need access to education and training beyond that which they might normally be exposed to.
There are some schools out there that try and maximise grades for selfish reasons – of that I have no doubt – but the vast majority of the schools I know about try and maximise grades because it means opportunities for students. It means students that can get onto that university course, or start that apprenticeship at level 2 or level 3, rather than at level 1.
As I say, I am not a school leader, but I am responsible for pupils learning and results. I cannot imagine ever being able to bring myself to look into the eyes of a crying child whose grades mean they cannot go to the college they want, and saying the words to them: “try not to be too upset, the grade isn’t important, you gained some valuable knowledge”.
Knowledge is important. Different types of knowledge might have different "cultural capital". Some types of knowledge might be valued by government and Ofqual. But until the system we work in rewards this, until the way that schools and leaders are held accountable for their work with pupils rewards this, until your access to opportunities is not dictated by the numbers or letters that appear on your statement of results, then this sort of statement is at best unhelpful and at worst damaging.
My advice to Ms Spielman would be that, rather than try and foist blame onto school leaders, she take care of the broken system that leads to school leaders having to choose certain courses or cut short the time pupils study certain subjects just in order to (a) survive and (b) to make sure kids have the opportunity to flourish.
Otherwise, she should leave us to get on with the job of trying to ensure that pupils get rich knowledge for their own benefit and the grades they need for their future.
Peter Mattock is a director of learning at a secondary school in the Midlands